Plan to divide your time like this:

     •   25% Pre-writing

     •   75% Writing

This means that for a 25-minute essay, you should spend approximately 6 minutes pre-writing and 19 minutes writing. Don’t stress over the fractions of a minute—just follow the formula as closely as possible.

At the very end of the alloted time, be sure to glance back over your paper to make sure it’s as clear and well-organized if it needs to be. If you need to make corrections or move paragraphs, just cross out words or draw arrows to indicate the changes. Never waste time erasing—the  evaluators like to see evidence of thought and self-editing, and erasing is a complete waste of valuable time.

The Beat-the-Clock Writing Process

     •   Read carefully through the question. Be sure you know exactly what it says, because if you don’t take time to fully understand the question and answer it specifically, you will earn zero points on this portion of the test! You may find it helpful to copy the assignment portion of the prompt at the top of the page of your test booklet (but not on the lines where you’ll be writing the essay).

     •   Start thinking on paper. This process is known by various terms, including brainstorming, mind-mapping, or clustering. However you do it, this is a very important part of the process and must not be skipped. The reason that you must think on paper, rather than brainstorming mentally, is that ideas that can be seen are easier to organize. If you don’t think on paper, you run the risk of losing your best ideas or your train of thought as you write. During the exam, you won’t have any scratch paper, so you may use all the available white space in the essay section of the test booklet (not the answer booklet!) to write down ideas as you think about the question. Give yourself approximately four minutes for this step. Write down every idea that comes to you, even if you are not sure it is usable. Feel free to use abbreviations and short phrases—just put down enough to help you remember the essence of the thought.

     •   Organize ideas. When you have several ideas written down, start organizing them. Select the strongest idea as your thesis, then choose up to three other ideas that offer vivid examples that will support the main idea. You can rank ideas by simply numbering your concepts in the order you want to use them, or if you have time, you can quickly list them. You may use the remaining 1-2 minutes of the pre-writing time for this step.

     •   Write your first paragraph, using your main idea to answer the question and create the thesis. You may introduce the supporting points as reasons for your answer in this paragraph.

     •   Build a supporting argument. Write one or more paragraphs for each supporting point. Use vivid vocabulary and sentences of varying lengths.

     •   Conclude gracefully. Write a conclusion paragraph that wraps it all up. Summarize your supporting points and finish with a recap of your thesis.

     •   Evaluate: Finally, glance back over the essay to see if you’ve left out anything important.

     •   Finish! When time is up, you must turn to the next section, and you may not return to make changes after this point.

Practice Makes Perfect

Well, maybe not perfect, but at least competent! I recommend that you practice writing timed essays at least once a week until you take the exam. That will give you a chance to encounter a variety of prompts and to become familiar with the timed writing process. You’ll find one sample test on the College Board Web site and many more in the books listed in the resources sidebar. These useful guides also contain sample essays that have been graded.